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Syrian War Spreads Tensions Into Neighboring Countries

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Israel can't intervene without inflaming fundamentalist elements; Syrian refugees have cost Turkey about $2 billion so far; and the civil war has exacerbated political tensions inside Lebanon. Host Rachel Martin speaks with commentators from three of Syria's neighbors.



The stakes for this diplomatic plan are high. Bashar al-Assad had still not officially accepted this proposal but if and when Syria does, it must give a full accounting of its chemical weapons by the end of this week. If Syria does not comply with the agreement, the issue goes to the United Nations Security Council to consider military action against Syria. Since that's unlikely to happen, the U.S. could always go it alone. This weekend, President Obama issued a statement, saying, quote, "If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act." The war in Syria has far-reaching implications for all its neighboring countries. To get perspective on this, we've reached out to political commentators in Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. Reuvan Hazan is a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And he told me that the Assad regime has actually made for a stable border between Israel and Syria over the last 40 years.

REUVAN HAZAN: We are in a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If we intervene, whoever we intervene on the side of will probably be hurt rather than be helped. If we don't do anything, we have a very good chance of seeing an Islamic fundamentalist regime set up on our borders something similar to Iran. So, it's a horrible situation that we're sort of caught in the storm. We have to let it pass and there's nothing we can do.

MARTIN: Are people there supportive of a possible U.S. military strike against the Syrian regime?

HAZAN: One hundred and ten percent. In other words, we understand very clearly that when you talk about weapons of mass destruction, what the world will do to the Assad regime in Syria has a direct connection to how the world will react to Iran and its building of a nuclear weapon.

MARTIN: Over two million people have fled Syria's conflict, spilling over to the neighboring countries. Turkey has set up camps all along its border. Sami Kohen is a foreign affairs columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.

SAMI KOHEN: There is a lot of concern in Turkey, in Turkish public opinion, about Syria because, I mean, Turkey has a border of 900 kilometers and that is now harboring about half a million Syrian refugees.

MARTIN: When it comes to the refugee crisis really in Turkey, how do Turkish citizens perceive the Syrian refugee situation there? Do they believe the government in Turkey is handling it appropriately?

KOHEN: Yes. Well, you know, from the first day when the refugees first started to come to Turkey, I mean, the government took all the necessary measures. In fact, refugee camps have been established all along the border. And so, they are now, for instance, even schools have been established because it's time for children to go to school. So, all the measures are being taken. A lot of money is being spent. In fact, it was revealed only yesterday that about $2 billion was the cost of the refugees so far. I mean, it's still going on. There's still refugees coming into Turkey. And many Turks, of course, share the official view that the international community also should help and not let Turkey to solve the problem all by itself.

MARTIN: Hundreds of thousands of refugees have escaped into Lebanon too. Rami Khouri at the American University of Beirut told me that's only one reason Lebanon is sharply divided.

RAMI KHOURI: Because of the very close attachment of Lebanon and Syria and politics and emotionally, historically and physically, much of what happens in Syria is mirrored inside Lebanon. And therefore, I would say about half the Lebanese people are active supporters of the Syrian government, of Bashar al-Assad. And the other half of the Lebanese are active opponents and hate the government in Syria and are helping the rebels and want to overthrow it. So, it's a very polarizing issue and it's a very intense issue that touches so many aspects of life in Lebanon.

MARTIN: Lebanon is no stranger to conflict itself. Is there concern that the violence in Syria could exacerbate political tensions already threatening Lebanon's stability?

KHOURI: Well, that's already happened. What's really happened in the last year and a half or so is that the war in Syria and the much older tensions within Lebanon, between different Lebanese, those two dynamics have really meshed into single dynamic. So, Syria and Lebanon really must be seen as a single unit now in terms of the people on both sides who are fighting against each other. You've got the Syrian government in Syria, and it is heavily supported by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and you've got the opponents of the Syrian government in Syria, the rebels, who are heavily supported by Lebanese parties, mostly Sunnis, Salafists and, in some cases, some Christian groups. And they're supporting the rebels in Syria. And the fighting in Syria is sometimes actually being done by Lebanese.

MARTIN: So, this is obviously complicated. The situation in Syria is tightly bound up with domestic politics in Lebanon. But considering all of that, what does the best outcome look like in Syria as far as Lebanon is concerned?

KHOURI: Well, the best outcome would be one in which the tensions, the sectarian tensions and other violence that is going on in Syria ends, first of all, and doesn't continue to linger inside Lebanon. One of the problems Lebanon has had historically is that it's often the shock absorber for what goes on in Syria. So, if there are big problems in Syria, those are mirrored in Lebanon. And people are worried that if there is a fallout in Syria after the war finishes - one day soon, we hope - if there are lingering tensions or sentiments of revenge, that those might play themselves out in Lebanon. And this is not just an idle fear because this has happened many times in the last 40, 50 years.

MARTIN: That was Rami Khouri in Lebanon, Sami Kohen in Turkey and Reuvan Hazan in Israel.


MARTIN: And as we've been reporting this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry is Israel today meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Yetanyahu. Speaking from Jerusalem, Kerry warned that the threat of force remains if Syria does not comply with the plan to rid that country of its chemical weapons.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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